Back to the Past with Samurai Jack, Part 2

In Part I of “Back to the Past: Samurai Jack,” I began to look at Genndy Tartakovsky’s final season of his series in terms of its strengths and weaknesses with regards to its overall physical and emotional continuity. I touch on the adult darkness and Hindu-Buddhist elements made all the more poignant in this final season. But, now, today I want to continue talking about the effectiveness of Samurai Jack’s continuity, and themes, what could have been, and a retrospective.

Many fans of Samurai Jack have known about the Guardian and his secret time portal for quite some time. Jack’s encounter with the Guardian happened in “Jack and the Traveling Creatures”: where he fights the Guardian to use the portal, and is defeated and found unworthy. This is the point where the portal, being self-aware or representing some form of sentient entity, tells the Guardian to spare Jack’s life and send him back on his way until he does, in fact, become worthy. The portal shows the audience a future version of Jack where he is older, has a long beard with a white streak and is dressed like something of a Spartan king.

But when Jack comes across this place again after several decades, the portal has been destroyed and the audience can see the Guardian’s shattered glasses on the ground. Aku seems to have taken out this portal and killed the Guardian during Jack’s time away. This is where everything changes. The Guardian from “the Traveling Creatures” and what was revealed in the portal can be seen as something of a promise that just didn’t happen. For me, it creates an asymmetry that is just hard to look at: not unlike The Doctor from Doctor Who having difficulties looking at Jack Harkness as a living temporal anomaly, or – let’s call it what it is – a major deviation from continuity.

Almost nothing aggravates a fan more, or possibly a writer as well, than seeing continuity, in action or sequence, get deviated radically and without symmetry. It was rather disappointing, as it makes you wonder just what the point was in showing a possible future version of Jack anyway. I mean, I know that isn’t fair. There is no way Tartakovsky could have predicted a years long hiatus, or even the creation of the current story line. He came back to the story years later having had more experiences and developed his art further. It is entirely possible, and I’m speaking here as a creator myself, that he was just feeling a different flow or had another kind of story to tell that he might have told differently years ago and in the Cartoon Network format that he was given.

But let’s face it: unless Jack could start aging and grow another beard after having it removed by the gods in less than one or two episodes, that future we were shown years ago was probably going to become – to pardon a LucasFilm phrase – “Legends continuity.” Even so, there are other implications of the penultimate episode of season five. All the time portals seemed to be gone. And Aku is waiting there for Jack: hoping to take advantage of the fact that he supposedly didn’t have his sword anymore.

And then there is the revelation. It turns out that the Daughters of Aku aren’t just a name or a philosophy. Ashi and her sisters are biologically Aku’s daughters. Apparently, years before, he had given some of his essence – which fans know he has used to power robots and even at one point inadvertently infect Jack – for the Priestess to ingest and thereby impregnate herself. Up until this point, I couldn’t see how Aku could have impregnated a human woman as he is a different life form altogether and I did think their title was ideological at best. I also wondered if Ashi may have been another “Ikra,” but it didn’t fit. Not only does Ashi have her own memories, but she doesn’t have the tell-tale red and green skin tells that Aku’s transformations often possess.

And yet the reveal makes a lot of sense. It explains how Ashi and her sisters were able to survive being bathed in a black tar-like substance from childhood. It also explains how Ashi’s skin underneath was relatively unblemished after she scrubbed the dark coating away after one night. You can, in retrospect, see hints of this reveal in how she dresses in greens and reds when she eliminates her original black body-coating. But even though Aku can control her movements and mutate her with the part of his essence inside of her, she still has her own mind and does not want to fight Jack.

Jack has a hard choice to make before the last episode of the series. He knows his sword can destroy anything that is Aku. But he has fallen in love with Ashi: possibly the only woman he has loved after fifty years of torment. This isn’t even mentioning that he doesn’t want to have more innocent blood on his hands, even that of someone born from Aku, who nevertheless is not responsible for his actions. In my last article, I posited a question. Would Jack go back in time and kill Aku even if it potentially erased or radically changed the lives of all the people and friends he met in the future? And now, just importantly, would he kill Aku knowing that it could potentially destroy the woman he loves: as she is a part of him?

So now, with these moral dilemmas in mind, we get the crux of the matter. Episode “CI” is where everything goes down. It starts off extremely strong. On an “Aku-State” television screen installed everywhere, we get a throwback to the old opening sequence to the series – kind of like a story within a story or a cartoon within a cartoon – where Aku narrates Samurai Jack’s story. The only difference, this time around, is that Aku has captured Jack and he wants to publicly execute him: destroying all hope within his subjects.

It goes as well as can be expected. If Jack’s weakness was once impatience, then Aku has another kind of weakness. In my first Samurai Jack article on Sequart, I’ve mentioned that Aku could have defeated Jack almost any time he wanted if he truly put in the effort: especially if he ruled the entire planet for centuries if not millennia. The fact of the matter is that Aku is extremely arrogant and it is this trait, this hubris, that has cost him his victory many times. And, unfortunately for Aku, he doesn’t seem to learn. What happens in “CI” is nothing short of many systems joining the Rebel Alliance after Grand Moff Tarkin thinks to make an example with the Death Star on Alderaan.

Essentially, all of the people Samurai Jack helped throughout his life band together and attack Aku. It happens very suddenly, all things considered and somehow they know exactly where his roaming fortress is and where to strike. It should have been epic and yet…. Perhaps it was the pacing that was the issue. Tartakovsky had ten episodes with Adult Swim to end the series. Frankly, it isn’t a lot of time. We are reintroduced to old friends, literally old now after fifty years, such as the canine archaeologist,  the ravers, the aquatic Triseraquins, the Woolies, the monkeys, the robot civilization of Andromeda, the futuristic Spartans, the archers, and the ghost of the Scotsman – Jack’s best friend – and his many red-headed daughters.

But despite some lengthy fight sequences, we don’t see them for long. They just die, mostly, because they don’t have the power to permanently destroy Aku like Jack’s sword can. It’s at this point, with Jack taking advantage of the distraction that he regains his sword and manages to break through Aku’s control of Ashi with the power of “true love.” I know, that trope has been done to death but it’s basically as eternal as the human condition. I think the intonation of Jack’s statement to Ashi sounded a little off as well, more factual than impassioned especially given the circumstances at the time, but what followed was something really interesting.

I have to admit I was impressed by Tartavosky’s solution to Jack needing to go back to the past but there now being no more time portals. In the end, Ashi uses Jack’s confidence, love, and her own sheer will to overcome her father and use his own powers against him: including the ability to create time portals. She and Jack end up traveling back to his time, where we see a repeat of Aku banishing Jack …. only for the samurai to return and end him with his sword once and for all. Essentially, Aku’s own arrogance bites him twice: with the rebellion and his own daughter gaining the strength he gave her to betray him for Jack.

Afterwards, however, Jack and Ashi are about to be married with his parents, his people, and the friends he made throughout the ancient world in attendance. And, somehow at this point, this is the moment where Ashi and others realize “Oh damn. If Aku dies in the past, he never gets the Priestess pregnant and so Ashi ceases to exist.” It took her a while, but in the end as many other article writers have already noted, Tartakovsky takes a page out of the anime Gurren Lagann with Nia’s death at hers and Simon’s wedding by also having Ashi fade away. I mean, at least in Gurren Lagann Simon got to marry Nia first. Jack doesn’t even get that.

You know, you would think at this point that Jack would finally commit suicide. But it makes sense that he doesn’t. There is a beautiful ending sequence where Jack is standing under a tree and a ladybug, not unlike the one that came onto Ashi’s hand as a child, the one her mother destroyed, and the other one that Jack held and let go. This is how Samurai Jack ends: not in conflict, or in overstated victory, but in a form of melancholy, but true serenity.

I’m of two minds about the ending of this show. There are at least two sensibilities at work when I’m looking back at all of this. The first is a sentiment I share with a lot of other fans. I feel like the ending is too rushed. I also can’t really look past the blemish that is the Guardian and Jack’s future self that never really happened, even though it was kind of prophesied and now made into apocrypha. I think the bit with the goats is a little heavy-handed in its symbolism. Perhaps having Jack lose his sword against the Guardian would have been a more continuous choice: as Jack got disarmed in his fight with him, and it is unclear if the Guardian handed his sword to the animal mount taking him away.

And then there is the tone of the last season too that gets somewhat disrupted. Here we are, given this premise with some even more overtly mature and adult themes. We have Jack suffering from major post-traumatic stress disorder in the equivalent of his own personal hell. He is a samurai that doesn’t age and he’s watched everyone he’s ever loved or cared about die because of Aku. Then you have Ashi who overcomes her indoctrination to become her own self. There is something of a meditative sensibility created by the passing of the seasons and the different landscapes as well as the themes in this last part of the series especially that doesn’t get applied to a more important question.

Let me explain. This last season has dealt with personal and moral dilemmas. Certainly, we see some of this when Jack is faced with killing Ashi to get to Aku, or letting her live and surrendering to the demon lord. But the implications are so much more than that. Jack isn’t stupid. He knows that going back in time to kill Aku will change the future. That is the point. As I mentioned earlier, I feel as though he should have spent some time actually contemplating this moral dilemma and making the resulting choice.

I know that Tartakovsky was big on the ending to Samurai Jack being bittersweet, but there were other ways this could have been so. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure Jack was going to survive this series. I know that one of the pitfalls in having an iconic character is that it may be seen as unpopular to kill them off, but there could have been a symmetry with Jack sacrificing himself to destroy his arch-nemesis: especially after years of toil and suffering. In death, he would find peace. Perhaps Ashi, if they had gone the student, daughter, or lover route could have become the new Samurai Jack in this futuristic world in something of a positive V For Vendetta parallel.  But there are obvious flaws to this idea such as Ashi being seen as a token “replacement” for Jack and the fact that Ashi has her own personality and look. And, again, there is the question of time and pacing that comes up.

Then there is the possibility that Ashi and Jack didn’t go back to the past. I’ve mentioned before that perhaps the time portals were all tests for Jack’s character and they were never meant to lead anywhere in space-time. I thought maybe they were only plot devices as such. You could have had one scene where the spirits of Jack’s parents, people, and friends from the past tell Jack to live for them: to avenge them, but to also protect those that he has come to care for. This could have been another bittersweet ending where Jack realizes that he can’t, and shouldn’t, go back to the past. Perhaps he and Ashi travel the world without Aku, with Ashi becoming powerful enough not to ever let her father manifest as his power is now hers but they have responsibilities rebuilding this new world.

But honestly, I wonder. I wonder what would have happened if Tartakovsky had been allowed to continue his run of the series immediately after 2004: if he had been given more time. I could have seen an ending where Jack does, in fact, age along with his friends and comrades: where he begins to transform from that lone samurai into a companion, and then into a true leader. I’m also not the only one.

In Issue #20 of IDW’s Samurai Jack comics series, written by Jim Zub, drawn by Andy Suriano, coloured by Josh Burcham, lettered by Shawn Lee, and edited by Carlos Guzman, we see another new character introduced to the latter part of Jack’s story. Instead of Ashi, we get an old scribe called Mako: named after Aku’s voice actor the late Mako Iwamatsu. He travels the land seeking to write down the stories of the Samurai and eventually finds him – in his full grizzled Spartan glory – at an encampment where he is about to lead all of his friends and their armies into an attack against Aku.

In his speech to both the scribe and his forces, Jack tells them: “When I began my quest many years ago, I thought if I could return to the past, it would make everything right … I was wrong. The past is an ideal we can never recapture. We must always look ahead … learning from what has been but not letting ourselves be controlled by it.” These are the words of a Jack who has navigated the despair horizon years before, who realizes that his quest to fight Aku isn’t just his own, but also that of his friends. This story was created in 2015, during a time when no one was sure if Samurai Jack would ever get animated again: which had been about two years later. And I will be honest with you: this is my preferred interpretation of Jack, even though the way it’s left open-ended as they are about to assault Aku’s fortress, might been difficult to animate.

But then there is the other side of this, to which I’d like to conclude, though it might also be something of a generalization. In Western art and literature, most plots rise to a climax and then come towards a conclusion. But in some Far Eastern, or at least Japanese narratives there is the concept of mono no aware: in which you have stories that rise and fall in smaller crescendos, but actually focus on the beauty and sorrow in the impermanence of life. Samurai Jack has great elements of mono no aware in its passing of seasons, and time, and even life. Despite some contrived factors such as Ashi’s extended death, having Jack sitting under the cherry blossom tree with the ladybug is a serene, peaceful end where his life is restored back to its balance with nature, to the cycle of things, and the ladybug itself seems to hint upon reincarnation and the eternity of life. It is the end to a meditation and a struggle with karma and maya. Jack no longer has to fight. Now he has do the hardest thing. He has to embrace acceptance. He remembers the past but has to live for the future now. He has to live.

This may be Jack’s hardest lesson and I know that many viewers will miss him and his world. But even though his friends may no longer exist, even though they never truly existed save in fiction, we will remember them too. We will remember Samurai Jack, back to the past, and heading onward.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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